I will always be glad that when choosing to travel to India, our first destination and introduction was in Kerala. Five days in Kerala was the perfect amount.
We had just spent a month in Sri Lanka. We were used to the laid back pace of life in South Asia; even amidst the chaos of honking bus horns and tuk-tuks circling. We were adjusted to the food, and the temperate climate of the Indian Ocean suited us just fine. (Perfectly, in fact).
Kerala seems to take that one step further. And trust me, it’s better than the unapologetic overwhelm that is arriving as a newbie-to-India, in New Delhi!
The city of Kochi is steeped in history and culture. Arabs, British, Dutch, Chinese, and Portuguese culture all have left their mark. With five days in Kerala we enjoyed the eclectic and indulgent culture of the South Indian State.
It’s easy to find beautiful beaches to relax on the Malabar Coast, but there is also no shortage of sights and experiences to explore. We met fishermen at Port Kochi, tried ironing at the Public Laundry, visited the Spice Markets and cruised the backwaters of Kerala by boat.
First impressions were of a great choice for an introduction to this enormous subcontinent!
Six highlights you don’t want to miss in Kerala
1. Port Kochi
The most iconic sight of Kochi is undoubtedly the rows of Chinese fishing nets. The nets have lined the shore since the 14th Century and are still in use today.
Can you imagine the excitement of our two little fishing-mad boys (and the adult one!) on recognising the fishing nets that stretch for km’s?!
We took a tuk tuk to get from the New City to Port Kochi. This was an awesome choice as it included the experience of the small vehicle ferry from one side of the port to the other. [And when I say ‘small’; this is because by comparative measures the ferry was small… But you should have seen how many motorbikes, cars and people they managed to fit on!].
Sunset on the port of Kochi is stunning. It’s a relaxed vibe with locals wandering around enjoying the golden hour of day. And at the other end, its a busy port with fishermen returning by boat and auctioning off their catch of the day. There are food stalls selling fresh seafood, hot peanuts, and Indian sweets. Roti cooking on flat pans lining the shorefront promenade.
And, if your family is as fishing-mad as us (or curious), you can pay a few rupee to the men that look after the different fishing nets and wooden wharves. Have a go at using the old fashioned stones to lower and raise the nets yourself!
Mattancherry is an old area in fort Kochi. It is recognisable with colourful colonial buildings that represent the eclectic and multicultural history of Kerala.
It’s an odd mixture. Former colonial buildings mix with religious ones, including mosques, churches, Hindu shrines, and the ornate Jain Temple. But somehow it all seems to work in together. It is definitely one of the places in Kochi you could come to and still be amazed a second time. (We visited twice during our five days in Kerala).
You can stroll around the markets and shops that line the streets. Or take a tuk tuk around the back roads and find the local food stalls (and coconuts). Even people-watching on the journey to get there was a highlight for us!
3. Dhoby Khana Public Laundry
Kochi is steeped in history. You can see visible elements of the eclectic mix of cultures even as you whizz around the Old City by tuk tuk.
Well, visiting Dhoby Khana took that to the next level. It is a 300 year old public laundry built by the Portuguese in a co-op agreement with the local Vannar community.
Today the laundry is still run by descendants of the original families who live and work on site as they have for generations.
We often talk at dinner time about one highlight, or one thing we are thankful for that day. I remember thinking I would be lying if I didn’t silently say I felt thankful that at the huge public laundry neither boy asked what an ‘iron’ was for! [Phew!].
There are around 40 to 45 cubicles, with each cubicle owned by a different family. It was incredible to watch each system for washing, drying, and ironing such huge batches of laundry!
4. Spice markets
The Old City of Kochi has largely retained its status as an important centre of spice trade. You can smell the exotic mixture of cardamom, turmeric and pepper emanating from the spice warehouses even passing by on the streets.
The idea of a ‘spice market’ conjures up images of old India. And the reality is that the spice trade still continues much as it has for centuries. This was a great experience to share with the kids, and a humbling reminder for all of us about the work that goes in to even the smallest of things.
Gavin captured me well with my teacher hat on in this photo. Passing on my understanding of a broken-English translation at the spice markets.
This lady is separating the peppercorns and coffee beans so as not to waste anything that can be sold/consumed…
5. Jain Temple
The Jain Temple is also in Mattancherry, and is the place of worship for the Jain community.
It was a beautiful temple to visit but more so it left us heading home to read up more about the Jain faith. One of those travel learning moments where we hadn’t even realised how little we knew about the topic.
The Jain community originally came from Rajasthan and Gujarat states in 15th Century when Kochi was becoming an important trading port for India, so the temple looks quite different from the more common South Indian styles.
And aside from the beautifully sculpted buildings, the main attraction here now seems to be a midday prayer and pigeon feeding. The temple feeds them rice and dahl every day, and after a prayer ritual people can join in and feed the birds by hand… Would you feed pigeons by hand?!
We weren’t quite sure what to think!
6. Backwaters of Kerala
ANOTHER highlight of our five days in Kerala was a day trip to the backwaters, and the drive to get there.
Historically this area of South India is known for the communities that live along the banks of the rivers and backwaters. Here they commute by longboat, exactly as they have done for generations.
As a visitor you can go for a two-hour boat ride, or you can hire a houseboat for the night or longer. We took the two hour option and this was perfect for us.
The drive to get there was the most colourful yet! It was amazing passing through the small rural villages of Kerala where every single person that walked past was dressed in traditional style. The women in brightly coloured sari’s and the men in longyi (folded sarongs).
Overall, this was an amazing day of hospitality and culture. The boat ride in the backwaters and a local lunch was icing on the cake! Highly recommend for Kochi.
If you are deciding on different areas of India to visit, and especially those to visit as a family, then don’t hesitate with Kerala. Five days in Kerala was perfect for our first time. We loved the vibe of South Indian culture. And honestly, we could easily have stayed weeks finding new areas to explore!
Like this beach for example; which was not how I had imagined for somewhere so close to Kochi!
India, is incredible.